The Material City
By: Jane Margolies | June 1, 2009
How the Bloomberg Administration’s push for design is changing the face of New York. A Conversation with First Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris. ——
ON A RECENT DAY IN New York, the city’s Design Commission, which approves works of art and architecture planned for the public domain, was up in its City Hall aerie, scrutinizing a new base for sidewalk newsstands. A block away, the Department of City Planning was finishing a proposal to rezone the Bronx civic center. Over at the Department of Transportation, daring plans were underway to shut down seven blocks of Broadway to traffic, turning it into a pedestrian plaza. And from its HQ in a converted gum factory in Long Island City, the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) was signing on world-class architects for its firehouses and police stations.
Welcome to the design-minded world of the Michael R. Bloomberg Administration. In office since 2001 and now angling for a third term, Mayor Bloomberg has had his share of critics. But most urban observers agree that no administration in recent memory has focused on design to such an extent. Overseeing this flood of innovation is First Deputy Mayor Patricia E. Harris, who worked for Bloomberg’s news-service company before his election and who earlier in her career served as executive director of the Art Commission, recently renamed the Design Commission. These days, she sits next to her boss in the bullpen that is the Mayor’s Office. (Upon election, Bloomberg ripped out partitions in City Hall, creating an open workplace reminiscent of a newsroom.) As New York’s second most powerful public official, Harris guides commissioners, articulates the mayor’s vision to his staff, and helps steer the five boroughs toward a better-designed future. She spoke with I.D. about the Bloomberg approach and how she got hooked on design.
Certain city agencies, like the Department of City Planning, have always had a hand in design. But during Bloomberg’s term in office, interesting design has come from surprising places—the Health Department, for instance, promoted condom wrappers and dispensers by Yves Béhar. How has the administration managed to encourage good design in all branches of government? It starts with Mayor Bloomberg. The mayor strengthened the role of [DDC commissioner] David Burney and his agency, and he has appointed a number of commissioners who are interested in design—a transportation commissioner who is passionate about it, a city planning commissioner who cares about the way things are built.
Last year, the Art Commission—which was formed in 1898—was renamed the Design Commission. Why the change? The word “art” never fully reflected all of the agency’s responsibilities. Art is still an important part of that office—we just raised private money to restore all the portraits in City Hall—but “design” better describes the mandate. There are many landscape and construction projects that come under review, and we currently have probably the strongest Commission we’ve ever seen: the architect Jim Polshek, landscape architect Signe Nielsen, Guy Nordenson—finally, an engineer on the commission! We’re very lucky.
Where does your own interest in design come from? I’m a New Yorker, and I care about the built environment. But being the director of the Art Commission for seven years made me look at the design of everything from streetlights to garbage receptacles with interest. When I was at the Art Commission, we organized an exhibition on street furniture from the early 20th century. We had drawings for a drinking fountain for horses from 1908, but we didn’t know where the fountain was. We tracked it down at the Vetport at JFK, and had it out in front of City Hall during the exhibition. We then decided to place it in Central Park for use by the hansom cabs—it’s near the entrance on 59th Street near Seventh Avenue. The other day I was driving through the park and I was so excited to see that fountain. Once you get into design, it becomes part of your life and never goes away.
What effort are you proudest of? I was very excited to be a part of the relocation of the City Clerk’s office, which is where the Marriage Bureau is. The City Clerk’s office used to be in the Municipal Building, and people had to stand on several lines and interact with several different people behind several different imposing windows. Now we have a new, larger space on Worth Street, and you can take care of everything with one clerk, in one place, without standing on any lines. There’s a mural of City Hall that you can have your picture taken in front of and a City Store, where you can get everything you need for your wedding ceremony—in case, say, you forgot your camera. The two chapels have artwork on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, and—perhaps most important to brides—the restrooms have full-length mirrors so people can actually see how they look. It’s creative and a much more efficient way to do business with the city.
Ten new bike-rack designs were recently tested, and one of them was chosen as the official bike rack of the City of New York. Over the next three years, nearly 5,000 of them will be installed around the city. Can you talk about that initiative? I sat on a panel evaluating the designs. Here is this repetitive piece of street furniture, and we wanted to make sure it was the best, the most interesting, the most functional. The DOT and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum sponsored the competition, and there were more than 200 entries. The jury selected 10 designers and provided each with $5,000 to develop prototypes. The racks were installed at Astor Place so that people could use them and offer comments on the competition website. The jury unanimously selected a clever galvanized-metal design that’s evocative of a bicycle wheel, by Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve of Bettlelab in Copenhagen. The whole process took a little extra time, but the idea is to go beyond business as usual and bring design quality and innovation to the work of city agencies. There’s no reason New York City can’t put the best face on what we build.
The administration has done much to support development: freeing up land, offering tax breaks to encourage companies to build, investing in infrastructure where development will take place, expediting permits. How do you balance go-go development with the need for good design and preservation? I don’t think there’s a tradeoff between the two. One encouraging project is the Bank of America building in Midtown. It’s LEED-certified, and it shows that aggressive development can also mean good design. The High Line—a remnant of an elevated Depression-era railway that’s being turned into a park—is a great example of adaptive reuse. And despite the pace of development throughout the city, there have been a record number of designations by the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 2,362 buildings in 18 historic districts, 132 individual landmarks, and 9 new historic districts outside Manhattan—the highest number of districts in boroughs other than Manhattan designated by any administration since the Commission was formed in 1965.
Have you encountered resistance to these modern designs by some of their tradition-bound constituents—the police department, for example? Not at all. They deserve the best, most interesting building we can give them. The agency involved in the project explains what they need to do their work—there’s a committee that meets with the architects—so they are involved in the design process.
Under the DDC’s new program, the proportion of the building budget that goes to design has gone up. How do you make the case that spending extra money on design is worth it? If design costs have gone up, construction costs might go down. If a building is designed well, there are fewer change orders, or maybe you don’t have to replace parts of the building so soon. The building might work more efficiently—a more expensive HVAC system might mean that the building is more energy-efficient and will cost the city less in the long run. You can design something simply and efficiently and it could in fact be less expensive than something not as functional and not as attractive.
What projects are in the works? One really creative and practical design is the Bronx River House, a green structure by Brooklyn-based architects Kiss + Cathcart that will be home to the Bronx River Alliance. There will be a nature classroom and a multipurpose room for the community and local schools to use. A screen of galvanized steel and mesh will wrap the entire building, creating a surface for vines to grow on. Rain collected on the roof will water the vines, cooling the building. Another project is the 121st Street Police Precinct building by Viñoly. It’s the first new precinct headquarters on Staten Island in decades, and it’s LEED certified. I don’t know if I ever thought of Rafael Viñoly designing a police precinct, but the city is lucky he has. Mayor Bloomberg has decided to run for a third term. What design goals would you hope to realize in the next four years? I’d like to see the D+CE program become the standard for the city and to no longer be called “an initiative.” A lot of projects are in design or under construction, and it will be great to see them executed. One is a new Mariner’s Harbor branch of the Public Library, on Staten Island. This community was known for its oyster industry in the late 19th century, so [local architects] Pagnamenta Torriani based the library’s design on an oyster shell, with two scalloped parts open to one another. I’m also looking forward to Kiss + Cathcart’s building for Bushwick Inlet Park, part of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront development. The structure will function as the Parks Department’s district headquarters, a community space, and a comfort station for the park. But what I love most about the innovative design is the sloped green roof, which will be fully accessible to the public and will itself be a park. Both projects will be winning awards from the Design Commission this year.
Given the downturn in the economy, might good design in the coming years be regarded as a luxury, rather than a necessity? There’s a school of thought that says you can’t have good design because it costs more. That’s not the view of our administration. It’s a common misconception that good design is only for those with big budgets, but architects will attest that part of their skill is to get the most from a budget, even a modest one. The tighter the budget, the more important design ingenuity becomes. In the current economic situation, there will probably be fewer capital funds available, but there are great opportunities as well. Construction bid prices have fallen significantly. There may be more people with interesting talents willing to work for the city. Jane Margolies is a New York–based writer and editor. She has a master’s degree in urban planning and worked in the Mayor’s Office under David N. Dinkins.
Photography by IAN ALLEN